Reclaim the Streets
The road is mechanical, linear movement epitomised by the car. The street, at best, is a living place of human movement and social intercourse, of freedom and spontaneity. The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of petrol. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, “turnover”. It doesn’t matter who “drives” this system for its movements are already pre-determined.
The privatisation of public space in the form of the car continues the erosion of neighbourhood and community that defines the metropolis. Road schemes, business “parks”, shopping developments – all add to the disintegration of community and the flattening of a locality. Everywhere becomes the same as everywhere else. Community becomes commodity – a shopping village, sedated and under constant surveillance. The desire for community is then fulfilled elsewhere, through spectacle, sold to us in simulated form. A tv soap “street” or “square” mimicking the arena that concrete and capitalism are destroying. The real street, in this scenario, is sterile. A place to move through not to be in. It exists only as an aid to somewhere else – through a shop window, billboard or petrol tank.
Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problems of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalises the many dimensions of life.
One place for work, another for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.
Won’t the streets be better without cars? Not if all that replaces them are aisles of pedestrianised consumption or shopping “villages” safely protected from the elements. To be against the car for its own sake is inane; claiming one piece as the whole jigsaw.
The struggle for car-free space must not be separated from the struggle against global capitalism – for in truth the former is encapsulated in the latter. The streets are as full of capitalism as of cars and the pollution of capitalism is much more insidious.
At first the people stop and overturn the vehicles in their path… they are avenging themselves on the traffic by decomposing it into its inert original elements.
Next they incorporate the wreckage they have created into their rising barricades: they are recombining the isolated inanimate elements into vital new artistic and political forms. For one luminous moment, the multitudes of solitudes that make the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people.
The streets belong to the people: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own.
We are about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest this is an attack on cars as a principal agent of enclosure.
It’s about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.
The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you out of the street… The idea is to keep everyone indoors. So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering “should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?” And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.
Auto-Struggles: The Developing War against the Road Monster
Britain’s first motorway opened in 1958 on a wave of auto-triumphalism. Motorways were presented as both an answer to ‘the public’s’ transport requirements and an essential component of the modern infrastructure British capital needed to compete with its European counterparts. The growth of bypasses (and bypasses round bypasses) has been promoted in the same way. These new roads appear to reflect a compromise between transport needs (of both freight and private motorists) and the needs for freedom from transport: the next road is always the solution to the congestion of the last one. And it’s perfectly true; the growth of the car and its environment the road do represent a compromise. Increasingly, however, our relationship with motor vehicles and roads reveals the contradiction at the heart of this compromise: the products that promise to liberate us actually destroy our spaces and enslave us in work and in leisure.
What is of interest to revolutionaries is the way this revelation is not simply unfolding mechanically as an objective and quantitative relationship between natural resources and technical capacity. Such factors play a part insofar as we become more conscious of them; but the most important elements determining how many of us are coming to define our relationship with cars and roads are the growing struggles around road developments. These struggles have brought many people into direct and effective confrontation with capital, this despite the fact that such actions are understood by many of those involved in purely ‘moral’ or purely ‘ecological’ terms.
To suggest that many of those involved in these struggles do not have theory adequate to their own practice is not to say that they won’t develop their ideas through their engagement in these struggles. Neither is it to say that we at Aufheben have a completed theoretical understanding of the struggle over roads. If we knew where the roads struggle was going we’d be there already. Instead, we are in a similar situation to many of those involved in this struggle – involved and trying to understand what’s happening in order to involve ourselves more effectively. The present article is a contribution to this ongoing attempt to understand and act in these struggles.
Part 1: The importance of the car to the modern economy
Roads serve cars. In order to explain current struggles over roads we need to trace out the development of the forces that have led to the modern proliferation of motor vehicles. First, however, we will briefly rehearse some of the more well known arguments against roads.
Know the enemy
Much of the following is fast becoming common knowledge and hardly needs elaborating.
Pollution and health: Car fumes are linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma, particularly for children. The car is responsible for 90% of U.K. emissions of carbon monoxide; it also produces lead and benzene; all are poisonous gases. Among the other nitrous oxides the car produces is carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas. And if they can’t gas you or destroy your climate they’ll run you over: 4500 people die on Britain’s roads each year. These deaths are depoliticized by referring to them as mere ‘traffic accidents’ or ‘problems on the roads’; they are not in fact incidental and inevitable – they are a consequence of a particular mode of accumulation and social existence, and therefore contestable. They are part of a vicious circle, however; concerned for their kids’ safety on the busy roads, an increasing number of parents now drive their offspring to school – so contributing to the problem they’re attempting to avoid.
Land: In London, 25% of land is devoted to the car. Every mile of motorway takes up 25 acres of land. DoT figures forecast an increase in car numbers of up to 140% by 2025 to a total of 39,000,000; this would require a motorway 257 lanes wide between London and Edinburgh to accommodate them and an area twice the size of Berkshire to park them. Furthermore, the aggregate industry blights quarrying areas such as the Mendips, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands as it extracts 250,000 tonnes of sand and gravel for each mile of motorway. This destruction of trees and green areas amounts to a loss of a communal resource; the continued need for further road building is therefore incompatible with our need for countryside.
Energy: It might also be argued that, since more ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives to petrol are viable, oil is best reserved for use in plastics etc. However, this argument does not necessarily mean accepting the ‘energy-crisis’ thesis.
Who needs roads?
Do roads harm everyone’s interests? Liberal critics of the road and motor industry add to the list of woes above the following points:
Roads are becoming increasingly less cost effective; the cost of ‘improving’ them is going up.
And as soon as new roads are built and old ones expanded, they fill up because increased road transport is encouraged. Congestion is therefore not improved and businesses pay the cost of traffic jams.
Finally the liberal critics argue that particular car/road capitals are cutting ‘everyone’s’ throat in the long run because ‘we’ can’t carry on indefinitely using resources in this way.
But, although particular capitals tend not to operate in terms of the future interests of capital in general, there is no reason in principle why a ‘greener’ capitalism can’t be developed. (In fact, it is being developed right now to recuperate the developing ‘green rage’ into consumer channels.) So why has the car been preferred to more eco-friendly alternatives, such as rail transport? Tracing the development of the motor car industry – and thus road expansion – historically, we can observe a number of forces at work.
Capital needs transport
To put this history of car industry expansion in perspective, however, we need to point to capital’s general requirements. Capital is a relationship which necessarily seeks to expand itself. Capital is, essentially, the boundless expansion of value (i.e. of alienated labour) – it is the need and striving to achieve such indefinite expansion. In other words, the economy must expand or die! Thus one important indicator used by economists to gage the health of an economy is percentage growth in gross national product.
From the capitalist’s perspective, one way of creating profit (i.e. surplus-value) more quickly, and hence speeding expansion, is to reduce turnover times; the capitalist always seeks a way of producing goods more quickly and getting them to market more quickly.
Expansion and faster turnovers require efficient transport. Raw materials need to be moved from their source (e.g. mines, farms etc.) to factories to make new commodities. These commodities in turn may need to be transported to further factories to modify their use-value and value before they reach shops. Finally they are transported to shops in order to realize their values in the realm of consumption.
The dynamic of the motor industry: from labour process to way of life
The need for the road-building programme is the need of an alien power. Roads are not simply for moving commodities about per se. Capital needs more roads simply because the motor industry still represents a key locus for its expansion.
As it has grown to serve the needs of particular capitals, the motor industry has developed new needs and desires of its own – desires which draw their energy, vampire-like, from the energy of its host, the proletariat, and which have pushed the motor industry into a pivotal position in its own right in developed economies. But how has it been able to do this?
Railways and the rise of industrial capitalism
A hundred years ago it was not roads, but the railways which were the dominant capitalist mode of land transport. Railways were the iron sinews that had drawn industrial capitalism to its feet. Indeed, the spread of railways across the globe was then synomous with the spread of industrial capitalism.
Providing the rapid and efficient transport of people and commodities over vast distances, railways had made possible the concentration of production in factories centred in large industrial cities. Whereas before production had been dispersed in traditionally based cottage industries and sold for the most part in local markets, the railways had made it possible to concentrate and totally reorganise production in huge factories that could supply both national and world markets. In this way the railways had facilitated the destruction of the old craft skills, which had given workers a large degree of control over their labour, and had thereby served to impose the real subsumption of labour under capital.
With workers concentrated in factories under the direct organisation and supervision of the capitalist and his functionaries, the railways provided the means for the further subordination of the worker to capital that came with the mechanisation of factory production. Mechanisation of production required huge quantities of steel to build and maintain machines and even greater quantities of coal to power them. It was the railways, that are so perfect for hauling bulk materials rapidly over large distances, which provided the vital means of transport without which mechanisation of production would have been impossible.
Yet the railways did not merely make industrial capitalism possible, the railways epitomised early industrial capitalism. The mechanical regularity of the machine that reduced the movements of the worker to its own rhythms in the factory were replicated in the punctual regularity of the railway timetables that confined movement of people to the discipline of precise departure times. The railways after all were the mechanisation of transport.
Having facilitated the development and concentration of industrial capitalism, by the end of the nineteenth century the railways had come to stand alongside iron and steel and coal as one of the central pillars of monopoly capitalism. But with the turn of century this era of capitalism entered into a period of grave crisis whose resolution saw the decline of railways and the rise of the motor industry as a central locus of capital accumulation.
The crisis of monopoly capitalism and the decline of the railways
The development of the factory system and the growth of huge industrial cities brought with it the emergence of the urban industrialised proletariat that stood opposed to capitalism. But capital was not simply confronted by the sheer numbers of the working class that were now concentrated together in the factory and the city but also by their growing power within production. Although the old craft skills that had given the traditional artisan control over his work had been swept away by industrialisation, many industrial workers had become able to define, develop and defend new industrial skills that were vital to the industrial production process. Such skills were evident on the railways as any other industry. The management could not hope to understand the complexities and idiosyncrasies of driving and stoking a steam engine any more than they could hope to develop the finely tuned ear of the wheeltapper.
In response to the growing power of the working class, the bourgeoisie pursued a policy of divide and rule. While attempting to repress the demands of the mass of unskilled workers, skilled workers were conceded higher wages while their limited control over production came to be tolerated. To pay for such concessions capital either had to cut the costs of raw materials by increasing the exploitation of the colonies or else by exploiting their monopoly positions to push prices up at the expense of non-monopoly and pre-capitalist sectors of the economy.
In most industries monopoly prices could only be obtained by restricting domestic production and thus severely limiting the scope for domestic capital accumulation. Consequently, this excess of both commodities and capital drove nationally based capitals to find foreign outlets. With the drive to export capital and commodities, and the need to secure cheap raw materials to cut production costs, international competition and imperialist rivalries intensified.
By the first decade of this century this intensification of international competition, together with the growing power and militancy of the unskilled working class, had reached the point where the capitalists were forced to begin to reconsider their compromise with the skilled workers. However, attempts to cut skilled wages and to wrestle back control over the production process through the introduction of Taylorism (i.e. scientific management through time and motion studies etc) only served to increase the militancy of skilled workers who now in increasing numbers began to flock to the banners of revolutionary syndicalism under the slogan of ‘workers control of production!’.
With the mutual intensification of international competition and class conflict capitalism faced a severe crisis which threatened it very existence. The question of the day had become that of, war or revolution!
In 1914 war broke out and engulfed the capitalist heartlands of Europe. Three years later, after millions had been slaughtered in the trenches, revolution broke out in Russia which then sparked a wave of revolutionary movements across mainland Europe. After several years of bitter and intense struggles the revolutionary workers movements in Europe were both defeated and defused one by one by social democracy, fascism and stalinism. Yet despite such defeats, it was not until 1945, after another bloody world war, that capitalism was able to resolve the crisis of monopoly capitalism and establish the basis of a new era of accumulation centred around what has become known as the post-war settlement.
The post-war settlement and the rise of the car
With the class compromise of the post-war settlement, which was established in varying forms throughout the advanced capitalist nations, the working class, in effect, abandoned all hopes for the end of capitalism and relinquished much of its existing control within production. In return the working class was offered the welfare state, the promise of stable full employment and rising living standards.
Yet the post-war settlement, and with it the post-war boom, was only made possible on the basis of a new strategy and mode of accumulation – Fordism. Fordism was based on the mass assembly line production of standardised consumer goods which was made possible by the replacement of the skilled worker by semi-skilled assembly line workers, that then allowed management detailed control over the labour-process. With such detailed control, assembly line production opened up a huge potential for the application and refinement of ‘scientific management’ and automation which together opened the way for an enormous growth in the productivity of labour.
This scope for raising labour productivity meant that, within the bounds of increased productivity, both wages and profits could rise at one and the same time. With rising wages, and the relative secure employment offered by Fordist production methods, Fordism was then able to provide the basis for mass consumption which was a necessary condition for its own reproduction. The mass production of consumer durables created the effective demand for such consumer goods by creating a relatively prosperous working class.
The analysis of Fordism, and the institutions such as collective bargaining and Keynesian demand management that arose to ensure that the mass consumer demand was able to match the expansion of mass production, has been dealt with in great detail elsewhere. Our main concern here is to stress the centrality of the motor industry for Fordism.
Fordism, as it name indicates, was first pioneered by the Ford motor company in the 1920s, and further experiments were made in Nazi Germany with the development of the Volkswagen (the peoples car) and the building of the Autobahns across Germany in the 1930s. As such the motor industry became the model for whole number of consumer durables that followed its lead, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, hi fis etc
But the car was not merely the first in a line of consumer durables to be produced by Fordist production methods it was also the foremost. After housing the car has become the biggest purchase an ordinary consumer is likely to make, being the equivalent to several months wages. Furthermore, the production of a car involves a wide range of industries ranging from rubber, steel, plastic, electrical, oil together with support industries such as road construction, advertising and finance. The broad range of such economic linkages has meant that large and diverse sections of the modern economy have become dependent on car production to such a degree that car production has become an important economic indicator in its own right. As has been said ‘when General Motors sneezes America catches cold!’.
But it not simply at an economic level that the car, as the exemplar of Fordist production, has served to sustain the post-war settlement and the partial truce in the class war. The car has played a prominent role in altering the life and conceptions of the working class which has served to consolidate the social and ideological conditions of the class compromise established within the post-war settlement.
With the post-war reconstruction of bombed cities throughout Europe the opportunity was taken by capitalist state planners to break up the old working class communities and relocate the working class in new tower blocs, new towns and ‘Garden cities’ and in the middle class suburban areas that had grown up in the inter-war era. This dislocation of the working class from the location of production was at first made possible by the development of public transport, but its further development was consolidated by growing car ownership.
This relocation of the working class, which was increasingly made possible by the spread of the car, was in many ways a major advance for many who were able to escape their old slums and claustrophobic communities for modern housing with inside toilets etc. But it was a gain that had its cost. With the break up of the old communities came the break up of the old working class solidarity to be replaced by the isolated individualism of the new sterilised housing estates. Neighbours are now never seen as they rush past in the motor cars and as neighbourhoods become more dangerous and unpleasant due to increasing traffic more and more people retreat into the comfort of their houses.
Thus the car has become a bubble, a sealed environment, a shield from the picket line; it renders relations more distant in the way that public transport cannot. For businesses, motor transport has become an ideal way to employ scab labour. Potential militancy by railway workers, who could gather together and organise co-ordinated shut-downs at stations and depots, preventing vast amounts of commodities and raw materials moving, could be bypassed with a fleet of individual contract lorry drivers. The lorry has almost become identified with the scab, particularly since the role of TNT in the News International dispute.
Thus although the working class is still concentrated in urban areas this threat to capitalism is mitigated by containing the working class as consumer citizens esconed in their little metal boxes, forever moving past one another in the incessant movement of traffic.
The car and bourgeois freedom
Crossland, the great labour politician of the 1950s who saw in the post-war settlement the advent of socialism, once said ‘after one man one vote: one man one car!’. Clearly for the post-war ideologues, from Crossland to Thatcher the car epitomises freedom and democracy, and we would say indeed it does!
For the individual car ownership does offer a leap in freedom and opportunity. The freedom to go where and when you want. A freedom undreamt of for working class people of earlier generations. Indeed, for many learning to drive is the major break from the stifling restrictions of the family and the first step to adulthood.
Yet this increase in individual freedom serves to reduce the freedom of everyone else. Other car drivers now face that much more car congestion and delays; pedestrians, particularly mothers and children, become more restricted by the fear of death or serious injury by one more car; while people suffer more traffic noise and that much more pollution.
The freedom of movement offered by the car becomes increasingly a formal freedom, a representation of freedom, as everywhere becomes the same as it is tarmaced and polluted to make way for the car. As the car becomes the norm, the freedom of the car becomes a necessity, as the mundane acts such as shopping becomes impossible without access to a car. This has already become the case in Los Angeles and is rapidly approaching with the development of out of town super stores.
In casting us as consumer citizens the freedom of the car, like all bourgeois freedoms throws us into a war of all against all where other car drivers serve as merely obstacles and restrictions to our own inalienable right of movement. This inalienable right of movement consequently demands the duty to obey the highway code and traffic laws which is in turn enforced and guaranteed by the state. Through policing the roads and by giving an open ended commitment to provide new road space, the state ensures the bourgeois freedom of movement.
Yet as the volume of traffic grows at a rate faster than road construction the car has nowhere to go (except to take its owner to work) but yet has everything to say. The car has long since become less of a mere means of transport and more a means of identity. In curtailing the possibility of direct communication the car has to say what we are for us. Whether it is that we are upwardly mobile or a conscientious environmentalist the car says it all.
Although the working class offensive of the 1960s and 1970s which threw the Fordist mode of accumulation into crisis and forced a major restructuring of capital, this has not affected the continuing centrality of the car. Indeed the associated struggle of women and youth against the old patriarchal family structure which found its modern material expression in the family farther driven car designed with a wife and 2.4 kids, has long since been recuperated in the drive to sell cars to women and the young (and would be young).
So the car has not only become central to the accumulation of capital over the past fifty years, but has also become a vital means in consolidating the class compromise that has made such accumulation possible. The promise of physical freedom and mobility offered by the car has led to the political demobilisation of the working class.
Developing European markets
Infrastructures must be improved and updated in line with sources of raw materials and new markets. The European Union, for example, is an internal market, an attempt to integrate European national capitals and particular capitals within European Union nations to maximize the realization of surplus-value by stabilizing market relationships. The European Union has drawn up plans for the massive upgrading of a number of strategic road systems across Europe as part of a ‘Trans European Route Network’, an infrastructure to serve the needs of European capital as a whole by allowing greater efficiency in the movement of freight. The plans for British roads are centred around those trunk-roads serving the Channel Tunnel (e.g. the Folkestone to Honiton road, the M25 and all those roads coming off it) and the links between the Eastern ports of Harwich and the Western side of the country. Roads ministers talk of the individual elements of these roads (e.g. the A27, A35 etc. on the Folkestone-Honiton route) each being ‘improved’ independently but in fact they are being massively upgraded and augmented in conjunction to accommodate (and encourage) freight lorries. Aside from these public plans there are schemes that have been evolving ‘organically’ with the growth of bypasses. Now many new bypasses are to be linked up to form ‘superhighways’. The widening of the M42, M6 and M1 is part of this process.
The increasing integration within the world market of the eastern European markets of Russia, Poland etc. represents further expanding needs by capital for road development. Raw materials and finished commodities now need to travel regularly across the whole of Europe, hence the EU’s plan to integrate a road system all the way from Cork to Moscow.
Even without the efforts of the planner-union, particular capitals in the form of factories, retailers and road haulage firms are increasingly demanding and filling more road space. One trend which has been becoming more influential in this escalating need for road space and lorries is use by businesses of the ‘just-in-time’ system. The just-in-time system began as a production strategy aimed at economizing on time and space on the shopfloor by having efficient communications in the production process to ensure that only what was immediately required was built, thereby saving on warehouse/storage space. A firm using this system therefore attempts to save money by cutting down on warehouse workers, managers and bookkeepers etc. The just-in-time system reduces turnover time by reducing production time to the time actually spent in valorization itself – eliminating latent (i.e. potential) productive capital and unproductive labour.
Their ‘economizing’, their reduction of ‘costs’ is our intensification and rationalization of work. Just-in-time is essentially a method for imposing discipline on workers through surveillance and through their internalizing the regime’s rules and needs.
Factories using the system have many small deliveries a day (instead of a single larger delivery) from their suppliers, many of who in turn would be adopting the system. This amounts to using the road itself instead of a warehouse! What they save on warehousing costs, we pay in terms of loss of environment and air quality!
Worse still, since the advent of the bar code, communications technology has allowed the just-in-time system to be extended to retailers. Major stores are increasingly moving to huge out-of-town sites and using less site space for warehousing; they use bar code scans at checkouts to determine which items are selling and have them delivered constantly from manufacturers and their own warehouses on other sites. These out of town stores choose greenfield sites not far from major roads to which they add service roads. Or if they cannot find a big enough out of town site near a major road, they will offer money to a local council for a ‘bypass’ which will then be used by their lorries. This is what has been happening, for example, in Yeovil with a proposed Sainsbury superstore.
The motor industry remains a key indicator in the world economy. The nexus of related industries which depend for their continued expansion on the car point to its crucial position. The massive growth of cars has required a massive growth of roads. In Britain and the USA the underdevelopment of the railways means that the roads are in many cases the essential artery for the creation of virtually all commodities and the realization of their value in the market place. Given all this how can cars and roads be neutral? They are forms of technology, and no technology is developed outside the class war. They represent a particular definition of progress; and all definitions of progress depend on who has the power to decide what is good and what is needed.
Having outlined how the vital roles played by the motor industry and road construction in the modern capitalist world, we will now move on to the new forms of opposition to the car/road vampire that have been developing in Britain in the last few years.
Part 2: Against the road/car empire! The nature of current struggles
The factory and beyond
The provisional truce of the post-war settlement was abruptly renegotiated in the late 1960s, a process which is still continuing. But the cracks were appearing long before then. Just as working class power forced capital to develop new modes of accumulation, these new modes created new social subjects with new forms of resistance. The intensification of the labour process and the institutionalization of struggle in collective bargaining gave rise to a trend towards the refusal of work itself in the 1960s, particularly in Italy, where the Turin motor factories were a central site of struggle in the ‘hot Autumn’ of 1969. The ongoing elimination of powerful sectors of skilled labour and this new refusal of work in the proletariat signalled the demise of the privileged position of the workplace itself in class warfare.
New social subjects
In the factory, capital responded with Neo-Fordism. This was an attempt to make work less mechanical and monotonous. It added flexibility, variety and a human face to alienation with the aim of getting workers to internalize the capital relation in the form of self-management and self-discipline (e.g. semi-autonomous work groups at Volvo); thus it was intended to preserve profitability by cutting down on absenteeism. Neo-Fordism came to British workplaces in 1980s and is still being contested today. Other, parallel, trends were already developing. Since the 1970s, capital has been attempting to restructure social relations by ‘diffusing’ the factory; this is an attempt to defuse the mass worker, the antagonistic work-refusing subject produced by Fordism. Capital has therefore been attempting to subsume social labour as a whole. At the same time, class antagonism was already being recomposed at a higher level, and struggles beyond the direct workplace were becoming more important.
The battleground of the diffused factory has developed and changed with the mounting attack on and defence of the social wage. Original methods have been found to use aspects of capital’s ‘victories’ against the capital relation. The car features in many of these struggles, now not only as parts on a conveyor belt (exchange-value, bargaining chip) but also as use-value turned against capital itself. The car has become identified as the ubiquitous emblem of modern democratic identity. The very ubiquity of the car, particularly the expensive car, as both representation and embodiment of value, makes it a popular point of attack – as in the poll tax uprising of 1990, for example. However, the car itself can also be the very vehicle (pun intended) for the negation of the modern democratic practices of property ownership, representation, money and work. Cars were used effectively in the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 to loot and attack property, for example. Similarly, the riots of summer 1991 revolved around police attempts to clamp down on joy-riding and ram-raiding, activities which were in many cases popular in their local communities as both forms of entertainment (to watch as well as do) and alternative methods of providing means of subsistence.
Similarly, the burgeoning anti-roads movement is another expression of class antagonism and therefore an attack on capital. Anti-roads actions (occupations of land, ‘monkey-wrenching’, wasting construction companies’ time and money etc.) are direct attacks on the intended expansion of a crucial capitalist industry.
It may be objected to this claim that many if not most of those involved in the many anti-road actions that have been taking place over the last two or three years do not necessarily understand their actions in anti-capitalist terms, that they do not have socialist or communist theories, and that this is the case because they have a coherent identity of struggle only in the sphere of culture (i.e. consumption and politics) – they are not directly connected with the means of production (the true ‘levers of power’), and in their composition they are thoroughly heterogeneous (anti-roads campaigns are often made up of a odd alliances of respectable middle class types and unemployable eco-warriors); they are not therefore a true class force, a potential agent of fundamental transformation, in themselves.
Before examining in detail the practices and ideas of the anti-roads movement(s), let us digress for a moment to examine these claims, using our analysis of the class struggle since the Second World War developed above.
Against workerism and social science
The claim that the anti-roads movement, although a fight against some of the more obnoxious effects of capitalism, cannot in itself be an assault on capital is an argument associated with Leninism. Leninists would ask us to believe that anti-roads actions are only of value insofar as those engaged in them can understand (through their defeat or through party propaganda) that building the party is the only solution to their problems. They ask us to believe, in other words, that our own struggles, needs and oppression are not in themselves part of the class struggle and that we can only connect with the class struggle by building an abstract party in preparation for the ‘real’ struggle. The party’s needs are thus privileged over our needs.
The Leninist argument is based on an outdated understanding of the proletariat. As we argued above, the demise of powerful sectors of the skilled working class and the extension of the factory to all aspects of society means that the ontological privileging of the industrial working class is no longer tenable. Certainly, during the time of the Second International, revolutionary strategy revolved around the power of certain sectors of skilled industrial workers, who, because of their skills and perspective, were in a position to bring about change simply by taking over existing means of production. But now, increasingly, everywhere is the factory, everywhere is the battleground: from the university to the dole, from the street to the office. In each of these areas capital has to impose control to ensure the (re)production of labour-power. Each of these areas is therefore capable of being an arena of struggle with the potential and the need to be an intrinsically valid moment of total transformation. By the same token, in analysing the significance of current anti-road struggles, it is not enough to look at people’s class backgrounds (the ‘odd alliances’ mentioned above); it is also necessary to look at what people are actually doing, and the effects of their actions.
And why should we want to take over the existing means of production, anyway? They are not neutral; they were developed to oppress us – that is the function of Taylorist/Fordist/just-in-time practices. Taking over these ‘levers of power’ is simply to introduce further planning to capitalism. It is no coincidence that Luddite-type ideas are now common among militant sections of the young proletariat. Capitalism is now a world system, forever trying to subsume our activity in ever greater detail, and actions by any sectors to break the capital relation are all equally valuable. The proletariat isn’t the ‘workers’ – it’s the obverse of capital; and communism isn’t an ideal or programme – it’s the movement that carries out this negation of the capital relation.
A comparable argument against the significance of struggles like that of the anti-roads movement is made from an area of the social sciences that has become a growth industry since the late 1960s – the study of social movements. Weberian and postmodernist perspectives come to remarkably similar conclusions on this. But this is hardly surprising given their common origins in the attempt by liberal academia to recuperate revolutionary theory. These accounts of the ‘new social movements’ – anti-nuclear, gay, green, black and women’s liberation etc. – argue against the validity of class analysis by accepting the Leninist definition of the class war then ‘finding’ that it longer exists. Instead, particular ‘ideologies’ (i.e. sets of ideas) give coherence and structural significance to collective actors, and define their difference from and supersession of the ‘traditional ideologies’ (practices and roles) of class politics Where it is allowed in the analysis, class conflict is understood as just one of many possible sites of collective conflict, one that is not of key ontological significance, and one that is fast going out of fashion.
These theorists avoid relating particular forms of oppression to the requirements of capital, and thus they exclude issues of how resistance might therefore entail resistance to capital, not just to particular loci of power based on ‘moral positions’ or ‘counter-ideologies’. It is a function of their purely analytic perspective that they attempt to grasp the significance of ‘new social movements’ merely in their subjective aspects (their various ideas) and ignore their objective effects on capital – and thus how they might recreate themselves as a class subject. The sociologists limit the significance of the ‘new social movements’ to the particular, apparently disassociated aims of ‘identity politics’; they exclude what such movements might share and therefore where their logic might lead them in relation to the totality. These academic perspectives, like their workerist political counterparts, deny the dynamic relation of the ‘new social movements’ to ‘class politics’. These ‘new social movements’ theorists attempt to undermine a class understanding of these movements with their dull empiricist emphasis on differences of appearance; they attack with their theory the theory and practice of the proletariat by denying that capitalism is the issue and that it might be overthrown.
None of this means that we don’t recognize the moments of dogma, liberalism and lifestylism in the ‘new social movements’. Quite obviously, many of the new movements are consistently limited in their aims and actions or function only to disempower and channel away the energies of potential activists through bureaucracy and representational methods. Although the ‘new social movements’ are expressions of class antagonism, they have to discover this – and this is something that is by no means guaranteed. Thus we can accept that there may be an element of truth in the suggestion by the ‘new social movements’ theorists that such movements embody ideologies. But there never have been ‘pure’ movements. And a movement, like the current anti-roads movement, which stresses action without a conscious coherent political critique of capitalism is no worse (and is often better) than a Marxist theory – like so much Leninism – without a grounding in effective practice.
The current anti-roads movement
In describing the present state of the anti-roads movement, it may be useful to begin with its precursors. This is so because many of those involved in present anti-roads actions draw on the theoretical and practical heritage of certain other movements, whether they participated in them directly or whether they only know the ideas through literature, slogans and arguments.
What is now called the green movement in Britain has taken a number of different forms. For example, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) was born as long ago as 1926 to meet needs not met by the National Trust. The CPRE’s target was, and remains, ‘urban sprawl’. Until the 1970s, ‘green’ campaigns like this remained the preserve largely of middle class types who would campaign in a traditional middle class way (i.e. public enquiries etc.).
In the 1970s, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth emerged as a more populist force in green politics; these groups were able to attract a large number of young people who actually wanted to do something, so there were publicity stunts and direct attempts to ‘save the planet’ organized in the name of these groups. In the 1980s, however, FoE and Greenpeace became more professional in their approach. Now, much of their ‘activity’ involves commissioned reports and types of lobbying, with the bulk of the membership being reduced merely to raising money to pay for these experts to do their thing. At the same time that this was happening, the Green Party began to expand rapidly and extend its profile. However, a process paralleling in some ways the demise of FoE and Greenpeace took place here too; this led eventually to some of the more professionally minded ‘leaders’ leaving the Party to the liberal anarchist types.
In each case what has happened is that a need for ‘action’ of some sort – the very aspiration that made these green groups attractive to many people, particularly young people – has been met with the argument that change can only be effected through official channels. The failure of these groups in the eyes of would-be green activists has fuelled the popularity in the 1990s of Earth First!, a group which has put the emphasis unambiguously on action. At the same time, there is a trend (particularly since Twyford Down – see below) away from a purely ‘NIMBYist’ basis to groups opposing roads; the issue has become increasingly seen as affecting ‘the planet’ not just particular ‘back yards’.
The British version of Earth First! will be discussed below. It takes its name and much of its ideas from the American Earth First! movement. Earth First! began in America as a number of individuals who were prepared to do whatever was physically necessary to defend the natural environment. Though their literature still carries the monkey-wrenching message, the character of the movement has become more liberal and their anti-human deep ecologism has softened.
Other important precursors of the present movement(s) are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). (particularly in its Greenham Common type manifestation rather than its manifestation as an organizer of national marches ), and the animal rights movement.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the peace movement (in Britain, at least) tended to overshadow the green movement, and the liberals and radical liberals who might otherwise be campaigning against nuclear power (and other environmental issues) were campaigning against nuclear weapons. Since the peace movement went into decline, the environmental movement has grown correspondingly.
From these movements the anti-roads movement has inherited its radical liberalism and militant moralism and its range of methods (collective direct action, individual specialisms as well as lobbying and publicity stunts.) The CND technique of civil disobedience, on the mould of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, sits alongside the ‘by any means necessary’ doctrine of Earth First! and animal rights strategies. The coexistence of these currents is not simply due to theoretical incoherence on the part of those involved, or even mutual tolerance of different points of view. Their shared emphasis on morality (good and evil) has allowed them to coalesce in the new superordinate theme of saving all life on the planet (life and the planet being essentially good) from the evil road monster.
The present wave of anti-roads movements typically stress ‘direct action’, but this can mean a number of things. Borrowing from the CND tradition, the term often means civil disobedience or symbolic protest; but, borrowing from the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) tradition, it may also mean attacks on property, defined in law as criminal damage.
Many of the ideas and practices from these older movements (monkey-wrenching, setting up camps, non-violence, moral arguments) were used in the first major site of struggle, that at Twyford Down. The Twyford struggle not only consolidated some of these older themes as dogmas; it also produced new ideas and new practices as many people learned how to struggle directly for the first time.
Locals opposing the M3 extension at Twyford had already begun to realize that constitutional methods (lobbying, petitions, letters, public enquiries etc.) were a waste of time when a small number of people turned up and camped on the site where the construction work was due to begin. So began a long war of attrition, with a growing number of Donga dwellers, travelling eco-warriors and their local supporters occupying land, bridges and machines and sabotaging property in their efforts to save the land. For a while protesters were highly successful. At first, security men were bewildered and unable to respond effectively when people sat in front of bulldozers. Finally, however Group 4 security launched a mass assault on the protesters occupying the site.
In terms of the quality (methods) and the mass (numbers involved) of the anti-roads movement, the protest movement against the M3 development through Twyford was pivotal. Vast amounts of investment money were wasted through the protesters’ delaying tactics, sabotage and the subsequent security costs. The events at Twyford led to recent changes in the law to shorten the appeal period for proposed trunk roads, the aim being to prevent opposition groups from organizing. In effect, the more traditional methods of green campaigns have been rendered even less effectual. But this is actually not a problem for the new movement which in many cases does not rely on these methods and indeed doesn’t spend time on formal organizational issues. Despite the stress by many anti-roads groups that ‘direct methods’ will be a ‘last resort’, there is an increasing recognition that the constitutional methods are a waste of time and that public enquiries cannot be of use.
The decision last year to cancel (or at least postpone) the scheme to demolish Oxleas Wood, South-east London to make way for a road was due to the Twyford precedent. Another Twyford was feared when hundreds of people let it be known that they had pledged to hold hands round the bulldozers. A recent government document lists over 100 controversial road schemes, and includes some details of the nature of the opposition in particular cases, testifying to the growth in anti-roads campaigns since Twyford. For example, it states that ‘Residents of Maisemore are leading ostensibly environmentalist campaign’ and that ‘Residents of the area north of the existing A38 are mounting a strong NIMBY campaign’.
The campaign against the M11 link road
The level of campaigning has varied across the country. But perhaps one particular struggle has stood out in the last year both in terms of the quality and quantity of the forces of opposition: the fight against the proposed M11 link road in east London.
History of the struggle
There have been plans to build a road linking the M11 with Hackney since as long ago as 1911. For a number of years, a relatively small number of locals have produced newsletters, held meetings, attempted to lobby MPs and engaged in all the other ultimately futile, methods to stop the road. However, as far as most people in the area (comprising Wanstead, Leyton and Leytonstone) are concerned, the collective campaign began in earnest in September 1993 when the developers’ bulldozers first appeared. Most of the people who were sitting in front of bulldozers, occupying sites and trees and locking themselves on to JCBs with bicycle D-locks in September and October comprised experienced eco-activists who had moved to the area a few weeks previously. They included Twyford and Jesmond Dene veterans, such as Earth First!ers, the Dongas, Dragon, Rainbow and Flowerpot tribes, and individuals forming themselves into new anti-road groups, such as Reclaim the Streets and Road Alert who aimed to link up with the radical elements in Alarm UK and the traditional green campaign groups.
The fact that it was the nature-loving eco-warriors and not the urban locals who were involved at this stage was slightly paradoxical given that in these early skirmishes the issue was less ‘trees’ and ‘green areas’ but housing. The proposed link road would go through about 350 houses. The Department of Transport bought all these houses a long time ago and has been throwing people out of them for years. Once people are evicted, firms like those scumbags Squibb & Davies are brought in to make the houses uninhabitable: toilets are blocked and smashed, floorboards removed, stair cases demolished, doors and windows breezeblocked etc. to deter squatters. >From the beginning of the campaign, then, the defence and restoration of these houses as dwelling places was important. The empty houses in the area were treated not only as a general living resource to be defended, however, but also as weapons. The houses could be used not only as ‘permanent’ homes but also as places to crash for people coming up occasionally to join in the struggle and as bases for information and communication, meetings and coordination.
Although most local residents didn’t want the road, they were not yet prepared to get directly involved in action against it. There seemed to be a feeling that, since the decision to build the road had gone ahead, and since the bulldozers had already arrived, there was nothing they could do about it. Things began to change when the developers fenced off George Green, Wanstead, to begin work in that area.
Continuing the peasants’ revolt!
A short historical digression at this point. George Green used to be part of Epping Forest (could we make it part of Epping Forest again?). Now only a few trees remain, including (until December last year) a chestnut tree which was hundreds of years old. At the time of the enclosures (eighteenth century), the area was the scene of bloody battles as peasants fought to save the common land from the schemes of the money-system. George Green was said to be one of the few areas in the country where the enclosures were repelled and the land remained common.
The details of this story may be apocryphal, but it resonates with some of the events of November-December 1993. On Saturday 6th November, the peasant’s revolt to reclaim the land from the designs of the money-system broke out again. And again our needs, as users of the planet, were successfully asserted over the insatiable and destructive needs of the handmaiden of the money-system – the road/car empire.
While the houses were perceived as private, and not a community natural resource, the Green was recognized by locals as a common facility; its 300 year old chestnut tree was perceived as of historical, practical and symbolic value to the local children. A children’s tree-dressing ceremony organized by eco-warriors and local campaigners attracted a large number of local families who were dismayed to find that the developers had fenced off the land with nine-feet high hoardings in order to dig up the earth and cut down the tree. The first few that climbed over the fence were restrained by the security men. But then the kids started climbing in. The security men and cops didn’t known what to do. And pretty soon there was nothing they could do because they were outnumbered inside the site. People then took over the site. The kids often led the way in this; for example, they demanded that the security men release those eco-warriors they were holding.
Immediately after a mechanical digger was occupied and made to leave the site, people spontaneously made practical use of this opportunity and began undoing the digger’s work by carrying the earth back to the roots of the trees! The digger had made an enormous pile of earth, perhaps hundreds of tons; but people made a line and used bags to carry it all back to where it belonged.
De facto common land!
Still police and security men were doing nothing to hinder this action. Having seized the initiative, those involved quickly saw the need to act on their power and go further in reclaiming the land. So they pushed the fence down. Once the first bit went down, more people joined in. People acted fast and in unison, and eventually very little of the fence was left standing. The police intervened very late and by then most of the necessary work had been done. The ‘site’ had been transformed into de facto common land! Earth removal and flower planting by locals went of all over the weekend. By Monday, most of the earth had been returned. On Monday, security men were told by their bosses to get everyone off the ‘site’. But this simply wasn’t practicable. By dismantling the fence the boundaries of the site had been destroyed. It couldn’t operate as a site any more.
To date, this event has been perhaps the high point of the campaign. Not only symbolically but also practically, it changed the shape and size of the struggle overnight. A tree-house was constantly occupied in the old chestnut tree which became a site for daily gatherings. The new people that were drawn in potentially provided the necessary numbers for further occupations of the land as well as other activities.
A month after the Green was reclaimed from the developers, hundreds of people stood vigil all night after hearing rumours that an attack on the old chestnut tree was imminent. Two hundred pigs turned up at half past five in the morning and fought till the mid afternoon to remove people from in and around the tree and to prevent them from hindering the actions of the sheriff’s officers, cherry-pickers and the mechanical digger which eventually felled all the trees in the area.
A lot of the locals who had gathered under the tree didn’t know what to expect and were disillusioned by the action of the police. Although far bloodier crowd scenes than this have been witnessed in London in recent years, many of the locals perceived the police as ‘excessively brutal’. However, this revelation about police priorities and the logic of democratic power has not necessarily translated into a greater commitment to direct and non-constitutional methods of action. Despite its lack of formal organization, the campaign is already characterized by a relatively consistent ideology (an ideology which is consistent over time rather than internally coherent, that is) which provides support for the persistence of certain practices and attitudes. Below we discuss how such ideas are perpetuated by the social situations of the struggle.
Fall of Wanstonia
The houses occupied by campaign members in Wanstead were declared ‘The Autonomous Free Area of Wanstonia’ in January this year. This was basically a publicity stunt. The well publicized ‘fall of Wanstonia’ (16 February 1994) also functioned as a publicity exercise for the campaign although it was at the same time a serious, committed and often courageous attempt to protect perfectly sound housing from the sheriff’s bailiffs and 700 police who turned up to evict people. The DoT were so desperate to get on with the work that they began demolishing the houses when there were still people in and on the roofs of some of them. Since then, although activity has continued in Wanstead, the campaign’s centre of operations has moved down the route of the proposed road to Leytonstone.
Composition of and relationships in the struggle
The battles in Wanstead have been just a small number of episode in a long term and continuing struggle. But the story of the initial victory and eventual (although provisional) defeat allows us to draw out a number of themes on the nature of this struggle as whole, themes which illuminate some of the dilemmas of the anti-roads movement generally.
‘Locals’ and ‘activists’
Many of the new people who join the campaign have remained largely passive or auxiliary in their functions. Squat opening, eviction of security from houses and house restoration has attracted some local involvement (particularly in Leytonstone), but machine sabotage and demolition hindrance has been left largely to experienced eco-activists. Locals have often preferred to leave it to the ‘experts’. Many of them also perceive internal difference in the campaign in terms of ‘full-timers’ and others. On this continuum there are at one end people who do nothing else but take part in the struggle and at the other end people who only turn up when they are not at work. Locals often admit that they have to much to lose in terms of jobs etc. and therefore won’t engage in some activities that could mean injury or arrest.
But it would be easy to exaggerate the extent of this division of labour. Initiative and influence sometimes shifts in the struggle itself and the ‘local’ – ‘eco-activist’ distinction doesn’t always hold up in practice. Thus, although many older residents have largely limited themselves to providing resources for the ‘committed eco-warriors’ (e.g. food, blankets and wood for the tree house), site occupation has been popular among local youth, who, since the first George Green struggle have been keen to act directly. The eco-warriors brought with them to this struggle a heritage of useful experience of methods, but locals of all ages were leading the fence pushing in November.
For those locals critical of the struggle the issue is one of ‘outsiders’ imposing themselves (and their ‘hippy’ lifestyles) on a respectable local community. This argument has been the main ideological weapon of the locals who want the road, including James Arbuthnot, the absentee MP (an irony he appears not to notice). Involved locals recognize that the issue isn’t where people come from but what they are prepared to do; they simply want as many people as possible to help them fight the road. Eco-warriors add that one more road encourages still more cars and ruins the quality of air for everyone and adds to the global environmental crises. But perhaps the central issue is that the outcome of the events in Wanstead/Leyton/Leytonstone have consequences far beyond east London. Any kind of victory for those acting against this road here will both discourage the roads industry and encourage those involved in similar struggles in other parts of the country (just as Twyford and Oxleas Wood have inspired this struggle).
The housing issue
Twyford was about ‘nature’, ‘science’, ‘history’ and ‘mysticism’; it was a relatively untouched green area historically associated with the Arthurian myths. A road through east London, however, presents more of a threat to human lungs and housing needs than to natural eco-systems and historic sites. A common source of outrage for many of those involved in the Wanstead struggle is the waste of what would otherwise be perfectly good houses just to build yet another road. The proposed road leads directly to Hackney, which has the highest concentration of squatters of any London borough; and all this at a time when squatting is under threat from new legislation to criminalize it. The sad irony is that, despite the current levels of homelessness, the squatting movement has been unable to contribute sufficiently to the anti-M11 struggle. The reclamation of houses has been too slow relative to the rate of their eviction and demolition, and even when houses have been restored there have sometimes not been enough people to inhabit them!
Some locals saw the tree occupation etc. important purely as a way of giving the campaign media publicity. But it was actually a very important delaying tactic, in itself a direct way of hindering the road scheme. The housing issue has therefore not been overshadowed by the struggle over the Green simply because ‘green’ issues were being fetishized. The focus on the tree and the Green, although symbolic of the struggle (green issue, community resource, living area etc.), remained at the level of a tactic in terms of its importance.
The unifying theme of non-violent direct action (NVDA) has also been an important inclusive strategy in the campaign against the M11 link road. Its prevalence in the campaign reflects both factors operating directly in the immediate situation, and the existence of pacifist ideology which has been imported from previous struggles but which is readily appropriated by people in the current situation.
Factors in the situation
We can identify two reasons, reflecting the nature of the situation in east London, that have favoured non-violence: firstly, a concern with getting others to join in, and hence with public (media) image; and secondly, the relative effectiveness of operating within the unwritten rules of civil disobedience.
Public support and media image
Campaign propaganda and activity often reflects the dilemma over whether the emphasis should be on appealing to or on shaping ‘public opinion’. Those involved in the campaign in the Leytonstone and Wanstead area do not want to cater to every prejudice in an effort not to annoy and drive away the locals from the campaign – hence intra-campaign arguments for ‘looking smart’ in order not to alienate the middle classes have been rejected. Yet the usual ‘practical’ argument against violence has been that the campaign will lose ‘public support’ if we start punching cops etc – even in self-defence! It is argued that ‘others’ will be more sympathetic, and perhaps even get involved themselves, if the campaign is ‘peaceful’.
It is true that the general ‘peacefulness’ of the eco-warriors has made them attractive to the locals, in spite of the former’s ‘hippy’ appearance. In Wanstead, it has been one of the factors drawing in local people, many of whom are happy to commit inspiring acts of criminal damage but like to justify their action in moral terms. The principle of ‘non-violence’ allows these people to see their actions, and the more committed actions of the eco-warriors, as based on a ‘better’ principle than the law of the land and the rule of money. They recognize, in other words, that the road is about ‘materialism’ (big business, profits, ‘government corruption’) and see themselves as a force of opposition to this in a fundamental way.
However, it is not simply because the ‘activists’ are ‘peaceful’ that greater numbers of locals have been attracted and radicalized. Numbers have swelled because campaign actions have been seen to be effective in slowing down and resisting the progress of the road.
A second point in relation to non-violence as a way of encouraging ‘public support’ is that there are limits to this numbers game. As discussed above, not everyone is involved in the campaign to the same degree. This in itself can sometimes be a distinct advantage.
For example, actions such as site occupations benefit from people distracting security simply by hanging around; moreover, even the ‘passive’ supporters’ actions, such as bringing food, have been vital in terms of both sustenance and morale. The numbers have maintained the campaign at a high level of daily activity; a small number would be picked off or tired out too soon by the constant action.
Nevertheless, though people involved in the campaign sometimes talk as if they want to get ‘everyone’ involved, it is obvious that the quality of potential supporters is at least as important as their sheer numbers. Thus, those who are likely to initiate and take part regularly in campaign activities – in the vanguard of the struggle, so to speak – are more valuable to the campaign than those ‘supporters’ who actually do very little beyond express opinions and listen to speeches. The more radical and committed need less to persuade them to take part, and will not be put off if campaigners sometimes get a bit ‘rough’ with police or security.
The point is, then, that ‘public opinion’, conceived as a homogeneous and largely passive perspective that needs to be appeased by careful presentation of a putatively acceptable image, may not be as important as campaigners sometimes think in determining the success of the campaign. Examples from labour disputes in recent history serve to illustrate this point. Despite its poor public (i.e. mass media) image, and the weight of ‘public opinion’ against them, the miners’ strike of 1984-5 could have won. Conversely, despite the fact that 90% of public opinion was behind them, ambulance workers had little chance of succeeding in their dispute. Positive ‘public opinion’ is useless unless it translates into effective activity.
Concern with ‘public opinion’ inevitably leads to attempts to attract the mass media. It is of course necessary that people hear about forces of resistance; they cannot take part if they don’t know about them, and sometimes publicity stunts are a part of this process. But if the media are encouraged to present positive images of the campaign because campaign activists stress their pacifist identity and their ‘democratic rights’ to protest etc., then where does that leave other aspects of the campaign? The price of courting the mass media in this way is the (pubic) disowning of effective but illegal tactics such as monkey-wrenching and even the popular assault on the George Green fences as an ‘aberration’. To rely on appealing to the democratic prejudices of the media in order to get publicity means to risk allowing the mass media to set the agenda – to determine the shape and nature of the resistance.
In fact, campaigners may again be worrying too much about creating a positive media image. The bad local press the campaign received throughout 1993 did it little harm. Similarly, the larger-scale bad publicity endured by the anti-poll tax movement (both for the riots and the non-payment campaign) had few detrimental effects.
Effectiveness of NVDA
As was mentioned earlier, NVDA is a term than covers a variety of activities, including occupations, site invasions and attacks on property. The basic rationale behind most of these methods is to waste the developers’ money and hence ultimately create a climate where it becomes politically unacceptable for the Government to bankroll them any more. It might be argued that broadly similar methods, when adopted by CND, didn’t actually contribute much to government decisions not to step back from the arms race; the slowing down of the arms race was actually prompted by international political and economic developments. We will not deal with the economistic aspect of this argument here except to say that changing ‘economic factors’ need to understood in the light of class struggles. More to the point is the fact governments are not so free as the argument implies to pump money indefinitely into unpopular projects in order to defeat resistance. In the case of the M11 link road, the Department of Transport are apparently bankrolling the construction firm Norwest Holst up to the tune of £2 million. Actions by campaigners have already cost hundreds of thousands. The DoT may well be happy to put more money in, but such a decision would have repercussions beyond the closed doors of a Whitehall office; the money would have to come from somewhere, and the potential victims of any shift in spending priorities would obviously be resistant. Thus if people campaigning against the road continue to waste vast amounts of money through their actions, new areas of struggle could develop at the same time. The campaign of NVDA could therefore be effective beyond its own immediate focus of concern.
But if NVDA is an effective weapon against property and capital, then the forces protecting property and capital must oppose it. How effective is NVDA in dealing with these forces?
In the past, non-violent occupation of land etc. in green campaigns (anti-nuclear actions, for example) has had a certain level of effectiveness because the individuals involved were clearly middle-class types (i.e. valuable skilled mental labour-power) and therefore the cops were reluctant to lay in.
In the final battle for George Green and the chestnut tree, however, many of the people defending the tree were clearly visibly distinguishable as ‘non-workers’, eco-warriors or alternative types – the people that police tend to hate. Although there were also a large number of locals present, many of whom were recognizably middle-class, these people were also kicked, punched and thrown in the mud etc. Police violence seemed to be determined less by their appearance (and thus their class position) than by where people were standing or sitting.
Despite this, it is generally recognized that the police are usually less willing to get stuck in in this way to ‘locals’ than to those perceived as ‘eco-warriors’; this has been the experience at other actions on the campaign. But because so many people involved are obviously not middle class, overall there is little material back up (i.e., valuable labour-power) to the non-violence argument. There is therefore correspondingly greater stress on the moral, psychological argument of ‘shaming’ the oppressors in their treatment of ‘fellow human beings’.
Those involved recognize that the moral high ground is not enough. So they supplement it with other psychological weapons, such as humour – which they also use as a publicity stunt. Many humorous tactics are made up on the spot and can therefore take the police by surprise. Thus the sudden decision by many of those present on ‘Blue Tuesday’ to express their love for the police by hugging them was deeply disconcerting to the cops and left them confused as to their response.
It is difficult to say whether the Gandhian techniques alone actually prevented police being more violent than they could have been; quite possibly they did encourage a level of restraint. Similarly, it may well be true that the injuries sustained on ‘Blue Tuesday’ would have been worse had the cops not seen campaigners’ cameras trained on them. Either or both of these factors may have enabled people to fight all day without numbers being depleted by serious injuries. The fighting – and thus the use of non-violence and cameras – did not, in the end, prevent the Green from being taken by the developers, but it certainly wasted a lot of their time and money.
Regarding the use of cameras, those involved reason that, since mass actions are non-violent, they can use cameras without risking arrest among their own numbers. They hope cameras will deter police and security from violence and that, when police etc. do use violence, pictures will facilitate complaints and prosecutions. This assumes not only that protesters will be non-violent but also that they won’t break the law in any other way. The latter has been a mistaken assumption on a number of occasions, such as the first great fence removal.
A second potential problem relates to the point discussed above about appeasing the media with a presentation of the campaign as consonant with legality. The police argue that the campaign’s regular actions against machinery and property (and in particular the mass attack on the fences in November 1993 and the attack on site property on a big day of action in January this year) give them grounds to suspect that the campaign will do similar things in the future. Therefore they have been obliged to police the campaign more proactively. Unless the campaign disowns and suppresses its vital and inspiring attacks on property, it will have difficulty arguing that the police’s actions are ‘unreasonable’ in law. Democratic rights are part of an exchange process or equation. If you accept that you have rights within the law (in this case, the rights to protest, the rights to be moved by the police using only minimum necessary force, the rights for your trespass of a building site to be treated by police as a purely civil matter), then you must also accept your duties within that same law – i.e. the duty to respect property. The police’s suspicions of the campaign are reasonable; the campaign’s arguments against them are often inconsistent, though campaigners themselves don’t often recognize this. Given what the campaign has done and may do again, legal arguments and video evidence of police ‘crimes’ may therefore count for little.
Ideological aspects of non-violence
If a strategy is shown to be effective in a particular time and place then it risks developing into a dogma that will be applied indiscriminately. The importance of non-violence was inherited from Twyford (and before that from CND among others) and is already seen by some people as a principle rather than just a tactic.
Strategy as dogma?
As a principle, the pacifist qualification of the campaign’s direct action is based on notions of an ideal, good human nature or essence which transcends historical manifestations of human activity, including class differences. On this account, there is no qualitative difference between the violence the personifiers and protectors of capital use against us (in order to alienate and exploit us) and our violence against them (in order to liberate ourselves from this alienation and exploitation). On this account, our oppressors are also human beings ‘just like us’ and to harm them would be to ‘descend to their level’. Thus, during one of the minor fence-wrecking incidents, when someone new to the campaign was heard to call the security protecting the site ‘Scum’ he was told not to do so because ‘They are human beings like us’.
The logic of this dogma is that we might simply have to accept being assaulted, alienated and exploited if we can’t stop it through non-violent methods. This grotesque Gandhian inversion of what counts as ‘evil’, which prefers the moral high ground of risking personal injury rather than injury to ‘others’, also leads to the type of situation where some of the bravest eco-warriors go to the absurd lengths of almost sacrificing themselves instead of their enemies’ machines! Sometimes machines are regarded as targets ‘only in the last resort’. This idealist ideology sees only individuals acting out personal consciences and not class members acting on the basis of their collective power. It confuses similarity of appearance (punching, kicking etc.) with the content and object of the action itself.
In practice, whether it is ideological or merely tactical, the NVDA/civil disobedience techniques involve an appeal to the ‘humanity’ of police, bailiffs and security guards. Methods such as locking yourself on to machinery and barrels of concrete, lying in front of diggers and climbing on to them involve making ourselves vulnerable and thus forcing our oppressors to acknowledge their ‘humanity’ and their shared commitment to democratic rights and duties (e.g. ‘the right to protest as a civil liberty’, the value of ‘life’). Verbal arguments with these foes take the same form; instead of being treated as cops etc., there is often an attempt to ignore the real objecthood of these social categories and relate to them on a ‘human’ level (‘what you’re doing is wrong. Your children will never forgive you’).
Limits to NVDA
If cops and security can be emotionally blackmailed or shamed into some kind of restraint or defeat by these tactics then we are all for them. Indeed, the methods have proved relatively effective in the campaign up till now: they have wasted a vast amount of money and engaged a lot of people.
But if non-violence is a tactical necessity at present, this does not mean that it will be so in the future. To the extent that it becomes petrified as a principle, it could become a serious problem to the resistance to the road if that movement of resistance grows and conflict becomes more likely. It has often been argued that use of violence by the campaign would ‘give the cops the excuse’ to trash everyone. Of course, cops don’t always need ‘excuses’; so long as they’re physically capable, they trash you if theythink you’re effective, not just when you are ‘violent’. They don’t use violence against us simply because they are ignorant and immoral; they do it because it works. They are not dogmatic about it; they have evolved their violent methods through years of trial and error. We need to evolve our methods likewise in order to continue our effectiveness in the face of threats from the cops.
Before leaving this question of pacifism it is necessary to stress that in this struggle it is not usually an abstract dogma but a predicate of direct action. People didn’t simply hope that if they stood around long enough shouting ‘Let us in’ the security and police would do so; they did it themselves by tearing the fences down. Despite a concern with legal efforts, the crucial importance of action directly to hinder the road construction process is clearly recognized. Moreover, although many of those involved criticize aggression and violence, much of the ‘non-violence’ is far from passive and stoical. Damaging machinery and other property doesn’t usually count as ‘violence’, for example. And during the fierce struggle of ‘Blue Tuesday’, people didn’t simply sit waiting to be dragged off; they pushed police lines back, and snarled, shouted and swore at police. Despite the pacifist rhetoric, they were often an impressively intimidating and aggressive force.
Input from Earth First!
Earth First! (UK) has had two main focuses of influence. The first was the American Earth First! (discussed above). The second source of influence came from various related European currents: the European anti-nuclear movement and the ALF, for example. As EF! began to form itself in Britain, different factions began to develop, reflecting the disparate influences of the new movement, over such issues of public image, use of violence, form of organization and so on. The more radical elements became disillusioned with EF!’s lack of thrust, and set up the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) as an underground movement. These radical elements also saw more need to link up with other forms of class struggle and hence get away from the usual middle class type of lobbyist ghetto organization that usually characterizes environmental groups.
Earth First! is associated with the slogan ‘No compromise In the defence of Mother Earth!’. There are two elements implicit in this: the deep ecologism (also reflected in the very name Earth First!) and the principle of putting action before public opinion. This would appear to endorse monkey-wrenching and violence at the expense of courting the mass media, using the law and the support of locals. Yet in conference, where these issues have been debated, Earth First! has deliberately come out with a ‘policy’ of having no policy on either monkey-wrenching or violence. Again this appears to reflect two things. Firstly it seems to stem from the influence of liberal-anarchist tolerance of the particular decisions made by different Earth First! groups and individuals; many of those attracted to Earth First! are, again, ex-CND, liberal anarchists, ‘hippies’ etc. Secondly, it stems from a shrewd recognition of the importance of not turning a strategy into a dogma that defines the movement in stone.
Relatedly, Earth First!, unlike the typical leftist group, is not concerned with claiming credit for actions or with building its public profile as an organized group. It is more concerned that the action itself should take place. It is preferred that when actions take place – such as monkey-wrenching and other acts of sabotage – those responsible are understood to be non-aligned rather than members of named groups. Breaking a sharp ‘ordinary person’ versus ‘revolutionary’ distinction in this way again makes anti-road sabotage more inclusive and gives the authorities nothing to attack but ‘ordinary people’.
Despite the radical potential of many of these ideas, the Earth First!/ELF dichotomy has meant that the former is often more radical in its rhetoric than it is in practice. Hence although Earth First! is an important current at the campaign against the M11, much of its distinctive contribution (monkey-wrenching, for example) has been outweighed by pacifism and media-oriented methods. This is not simply because Earth First! members have lost arguments against other elements; rather what usually happens is that Earth First! members themselves practice and preach an ideology that is far milder and less coherent that the literature produced in the name of that group.
Forms of organization
As with other anti-road campaigns, those involved in this struggle make a fuss about the fact that ‘all the legal channels have failed’; they point out that the Government and the roads lobby ‘did not consult the local community’ and make the other democratic arguments. Despite this apparent concern with democracy, the campaign has certainly benefited from the fact that there is little democratic organization. This seems to have little to do with explicit arguments by Earth First! and other radicals against hierarchy, bureaucracy and formality. There is simply so much to do that there is no time to waste on electing committees, tedious voting procedures and any of the other long-winded nonsense we associate with democracy. There is a skeleton of organized duties (some people commit themselves to answering phones, providing food, handing out leaflets on particular days), but basically whoever is present simply does what is necessary.
the campaign has certainly benefited from the fact that there is little democratic organization
There are several good things about this highly informal form of organization. Firstly, it means that the nature of particular actions at particular times determines the form of the collective, rather than the reverse which would be the case with a formal cumbersome committee framework. Secondly, and relatedly, there is space for the spontaneity necessary in many actions; people are not accepting a democratically imposed and predefined discipline beyond their shared commitment to the NVDA and eco ideology. Similarly, it means that there is still room for the specialist or ‘expert’. Not everyone need know that ten people plan to trash some machinery for example. Why should they? Although anyone could do this kind of thing with a hammer and something to chuck in a fuel tank, it is not necessary for them all to be there. Although there is always a danger of an ALF-type division of labour developing between active specialists and passive masses, such a split is not likely to develop here because of the stress on numbers as the bread and butter of the campaign; what makes specialist monkey-wrenching possible is the existence of a large movement of people all getting involved in different ways; with so many people involved, culprits are not easily identified. A rigid and visible hierarchy would also allow the most active to easily recognized and picked off by the authorities. Lastly, although there has been little leftist interest in the campaign up to now, even if a particular party or faction wanted to take over, the lack of formal structure would make it impossible; there is no ‘committee’ to be voted on to in order to determine decisions and no decision making meetings to pack. This is not to say that people do not coordinate and that they do not have mass meetings. They certainly do, but decisions are not necessarily binding, and informality prevails.
And this is not to say that the ‘organization’ is perfect by any means. Plans are not enacted, things don’t get done and a small number of people frequently do most of the work and become tired out or resentful – or resented as a clique. There are also frequent internal complaints about lack of communication (and lack of responsibility being taken). The lack of formal coordination may have functioned effectively in Wanstead because of the closeness of the community and the fact the Green was an excellent rallying point. But in Leytonstone the lack of formal organization and communication has just allowed houses to be picked off one by one by the scumbag demolition firms.
Some of these point about intra-campaign issues organization need to extended to the current anti-roads movement(s) as a whole. The struggle in east London has been the focus of the discussion here because it is already serving to some extent as a national focus for anti-roads struggles. But this process needs to be taken further. What is needed, we suggest, is a way of bringing together anti-roads struggles across the country into some form of nationwide movement that encompasses all of them. In short, we need the kind of concrete organization or coordination that will allow the struggle over roads to be recognized not merely as a series of only coincidentally related local issues and campaigns but as an issue of national significance, an issue that involves the country (and indeed Europe and the world) as a whole. A greater degree of commonality needs to be added to the existing diversity.
Progress and need
In both Britain and the USA, radical greens such as Earth First! have developed from a deep green anti-humanist position to embrace a recognition that human need is involved in most of the struggles they are engaged in. But this development has been uneven. The most advanced elements in the radical green movement recognize human need as an historical essence and thus make the connection explicitly between environmental issues and the requirement to smash capitalism. Most eco-warriors recognize that technology isn’t neutral; science presents itself to them as what it is – an attack on natural resources (not to mention human need) to expand surplus-value. But for many of those involved in these struggles, this well-founded anti-progressivism and anti-scientism degenerates into both mysticism and a fetishized anti-workerism that sees workers as ‘dull materialists’ whose interests coincide with those of industry and techno-expansion simply because they say they need their jobs.
Despite this confusion, the common rejection of modern technological progress among eco-warriors find the right targets in terms of collective action more frequently than one would expect if it was entirely ideological or arbitrary. In the nineteenth century, railways were being built all over the place; this involved cutting holes in hills, knocking down houses, scarring green areas and natural habitats etc. – all the things that road development is doing now (although of course it is worse now because so little of these natural resources remain.) And at that time the railways were crucially linked with capitalist expansion; they were cause, product and symbol of the industrial revolution, the growing real subsumption of labour under capital. Yet people involved in the struggle against the M11 typically want to see more and better railways. This is a recognition, not only of the importance of human need in such struggles, but of the fact that human needs are always historical. We are against capitalist progress since it is always at our expense. We endorse the slogan of ‘Not one more road’, but we do not want to see the railways eliminated in an attempt to return to some ideal past. The point is that since there are virtually no needs (beyond those for community, understanding etc.) that are not historically specific, all needs are equally real. We have now evolved a need for a certain amount of mobility – due to the fact that one effect of the developing antagonism between capital and labour has been the creation of various modes of transport – and we will use some of these technologies to meet our need.
Future needs and forms of struggle
Just as the road building programme steps up one more gear so its antithesis has grown and flourished. Those involved in the anti-roads movement claim to perceive the ‘tide turning’ in their favour. There has certainly been a shift in the nature of struggles over capitalism’s need for transport and control – and ‘public opinion’ is moving with it. Now, refusal to take the presence of bulldozers as the end of a campaign has become widespread; the closing of a public enquiry is no longer seen as the end of the matter.
But we don’t see anything inevitable about this. The shape of future struggles depends on the outcomes of present ones. New sites of conflict are opening up but there is still a need for a lot more people to get involved because people are often spread too thinly over existing sites. One of the reasons for this article is the fact that critique is always necessary, because present forms of struggle eventually need to be superseded in order to overcome their limitations, limitations which reflect oppositional adaptations to these present forms. We only bother to make a critique of the anti-road movement because we think the movement is valuable and effective, and we find the courage and commitment of many of those involved an inspiration. One of the strengths of the movement has been its originality in finding new points of attack.
The issue of methods and strategies is crucially important right now as the Government introduces new legislation on public order in an attempt to undermine hunt sabs, travellers, ravers, squatting and mass trespasses. The last two are particularly relevant for the battle in east London and for other road struggles. Changes in the law could see a regression back to basic reliance on constitutional methods, persuasion of authorities etc. Or such changes could see a shift to a greater militancy born out of clearer recognition of the link between roads, the state and capital. Reliance on legal arguments may fall away as the law fails to provide even the pretence of an impartial mechanism of redress; people may come to recognize the law for what it is – an instrument of class oppression which will be changed by the state whenever the forces of opposition are effective within it.
Anti-roads campaigners in actions are often confronted by arguments from their opponents in terms of people’s freedom to use cars. They respond often by pointing to the way this freedom encroaches on their freedom from pollution etc. But they need to make more connections. As we have argued above, freedom to drive is the freedom of an individual consumer. This personal partial freedom in the market place is premised on enslavement as a class member in the sphere of production and in the social factory: this is the essence of the Fordist deal. What links this personal freedom with class enslavement is the freedom of money as a social and physical force at work shaping our relationships. The dominance of the car/road empire is our real subsumption by money in the social car factory as a whole.
We suggested earlier that the anti-roads campaign could have effects beyond its conscious area of concern; that it could help activate other struggles. To make and recognize these links will allow the roads campaign to coordinate with other sectors of the proletariat and hit capital more effectively. For example, the privatization and running down of the rail network is working in tandem with the Government’s current roads programme. We need to find some way of bringing these sites of conflict together in order to assert our needs over those of capital.